In fact, fish oil is even dipping its way into mainstream medicine. In September 2018, Amarin Corporation, the biopharmaceutical developer of pharmaceutical-grade fish oil Vascepa, released preliminary findings of its double-blind clinical trial. In the study, researchers tracked more than 8,000 adults for a median 4.9 years. The mix of study participants had either established cardiovascular disease or type 2 diabetes and another cardiovascular disease risk factor, along with persistently elevated triglycerides.
As mentioned above, the omega-3 index has been suggested as a predictor of the risk of coronary heart disease and other cardiovascular events. One study on a population in Seattle found that people with low omega-3 index levels were 10 times as likely to die from sudden cardiac death compared to people with higher omega-3 index levels (13). The NIH-funded Framingham study referenced above showed that the people with the highest omega-3 index levels had a 33% reduction in risk of death from any cause compared to the people with the lowest levels (2). In addition, a new study focused on individuals age 25 to 41 found that higher omega-3 index levels were associated with lower blood pressure in healthy adults (14).
Omega−3 fatty acids are formed in the chloroplasts of green leaves and algae. While seaweeds and algae are the source of omega−3 fatty acids present in fish, grass is the source of omega−3 fatty acids present in grass fed animals. When cattle are taken off omega−3 fatty acid rich grass and shipped to a feedlot to be fattened on omega−3 fatty acid deficient grain, they begin losing their store of this beneficial fat. Each day that an animal spends in the feedlot, the amount of omega−3 fatty acids in its meat is diminished.
If you’re not able to get enough fish oil benefits through your diet, fish oil supplements can be a good option. Fish oil side effects can include belching, bad breath, heartburn, nausea, loose stools, rash and nosebleeds, but in my experience, taking a high-quality fish oil supplement can reduce the likelihood of any unwanted side effects. It’s also a good idea to take fish oil with meals to reduce side effects.
Most brands of fish oil have been proven safe, free of detectable traces of mercury, and do not contain unsafe levels of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), a toxin and pollutant believed to pose various health threats. To avoid contaminants in an unrefined supplement, it's best to choose a fish-oil supplement made from small, oily fish like anchovy, sardines or menhaden.
Davidson, M. H., Stein, E. A., Bays, H. E., Maki, K. C., Doyle, R. T., Shalwitz, R. A., Ballantyne, C. M., and Ginsberg, H. N. Efficacy and tolerability of adding prescription omega-3 fatty acids 4 g/d to simvastatin 40 mg/d in hypertriglyceridemic patients: an 8-week, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Clin Ther 2007;29(7):1354-1367. View abstract.
Studies have also found that omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil are associated with improved survival rates for heart attack victims. A study published in the medical journal Circulation found that people who took a high dose of fish oil each for six months following the occurrence of a heart attack actually improved their hearts’ overall functioning and also reduced biomarkers of systemic inflammation. (20)
If you have a bleeding disorder, bruise easily or take blood-thinning medications, you should use fish oil supplements with extra caution since large doses of omega-3 fatty acids can increase bleeding risk. This bleeding risk also applies to people with no history of bleeding disorders or current medication usage. If you have type 2 diabetes, you should only use fish oil supplements under your doctor’s supervision. Individuals with type 2 diabetes can experience increases in fasting blood sugar levels while taking fish oil supplements.
The way that fish oil does that is to interfere with carbohydrate metabolism, and in insulin-resistant people or in people with specific genetic differences that might predispose them to having very high triglycerides, you do benefit from interfering that pathway with the fish oil, but I would actually try a low-carbohydrate diet in a lot of those situations to see if that helps with lowering triglycerides, or in the case of insulin resistance, I would try to address the insulin resistance at its root cause.
The number, location, and orientation of the double bonds determine the health effects of fatty acids on the body. One aspect of this is their effect on triglycerides and LDL and HDL types of cholesterol, which in turn affect how much cholesterol gets deposited on the inside of blood vessels. There are also subtypes of LDL and HDL which are also likely important to their health effects.
There have been conflicting results reported about EPA and DHA and their use with regard to major coronary events and their use after myocardial infarction. EPA+DHA has been associated with a reduced risk of recurrent coronary artery events and sudden cardiac death after an acute myocardial infarction (RR, 0.47; 95% CI: 0.219–0.995) and a reduction in heart failure events (adjusted HR: 0.92; 99% CI: 0.849–0.999) (34–36). A study using EPA supplementation in combination with a statin, compared with statin therapy alone, found that, after 5 y, the patients in the EPA group (n = 262) who had a history of coronary artery disease had a 19% relative reduction in major coronary events (P = 0.011). However, in patients with no history of coronary artery disease (n = 104), major coronary events were reduced by 18%, but this finding was not significant (37). This Japanese population already has a high relative intake of fish compared with other nations, and, thus, these data suggest that supplementation has cardiovascular benefits in those who already have sufficient baseline EPA+DHA levels. Another study compared patients with impaired glucose metabolism (n = 4565) with normoglycemic patients (n = 14,080). Impaired glucose metabolism patients had a significantly higher coronary artery disease HR (1.71 in the non-EPA group and 1.63 in the EPA group). The primary endpoint was any major coronary event including sudden cardiac death, myocardial infarction, and other nonfatal events. Treatment of impaired glucose metabolism patients with EPA showed a significantly lower major coronary event HR of 0.78 compared with the non–EPA-treated impaired glucose metabolism patients (95% CI: 0.60–0.998; P = 0.048), which demonstrates that EPA significantly suppresses major coronary events (38). When looking at the use of EPA+DHA and cardiovascular events after myocardial infarction, of 4837 patients, a major cardiovascular event occurred in 671 patients (13.9%) (39). A post hoc analysis of the data from these diabetic patients showed that rates of fatal coronary heart disease and arrhythmia-related events were lower among patients in the EPA+DHA group than among the placebo group (HR for fatal coronary heart disease: 0.51; 95% CI: 0.27–0.97; HR for arrhythmia-related events: 0.51; 95% CI: 0.24–1.11, not statistically significant) (39). Another study found that there was no significant difference in sudden cardiac death or total mortality between an EPA+DHA supplementation group and a control group in those patients treated after myocardial infarction (40). Although these last 2 studies appear to be negative in their results, it is possible that the more aggressive treatment with medications in these more recent studies could attribute to this.
Fish oil is also extremely beneficial for pregnant women and their children. Throughout pregnancy and also while breastfeeding, a woman’s omega-3 needs are even higher than usual. According to the American Pregnancy Association, most U.S. women are deficient in EPA and especially DHA going into pregnancy and get even more depleted during pregnancy, as the placenta supplies the fetus with DHA from the mother’s tissue. Omega-3 DHA is a critical building block of the fetal brain, eyes and nervous system. Once the baby is born, omega-3s continue to be vital to healthy brain development and immune function. (30)